A leading candidate to become the next head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales believes priests should be allowed to marry.
By Jonathan Wynne-Jones,
Religious Affairs Correspondent
The Telegraph (UK)
Last Updated: 11:06PM GMT 08 Nov 2008
The Rt Rev Malcolm McMahon, Bishop of Nottingham, said there is no doctrinal reason preventing them from having wives.
Roman Catholic priests have been required to take a vow of celibacy for centuries, but he argued that this now seemed unfair following the influx of married Anglican clergy.
His comments are set to reignite the debate over whether the Church should end the tradition in a bid to deal with the shortage of priests.
Pope Benedict XVI blocked moves to allow Catholic clergy to wed when he reaffirmed the value of celibacy in 2006 and an archbishop has been excommunicated for ordaining four married men as priests.
While Bishop McMahon said changing the law would not solve the Church's problems in recruiting men for the priesthood, he said that there would be benefits to such a move.
He claimed that clergy with a family could offer different gifts and it would enable men who did not feel called to celibacy to enter the priesthood.
"There is no reason why priests shouldn't be allowed to marry," he told The Sunday Telegraph.
"It has always been a matter of discipline rather than doctrine."
Priests have had to take a vow of celibacy after a decree from Pope Gregory VII in the eleventh century, which was then confirmed by subsequent Popes in the following century.
Bishop McMahon added: "It is a question of justice for those men who want to be priests and to have a wife. Marriage should not bar them from their vocation but they must be married before they are ordained. The justice issue also applies to communities which could be deprived of the Eucharist because there aren’t enough priests.”
Around 150,000 men are estimated to have left the priesthood to marry and many want to return to the active clergy.
Married Anglican clergy who were opposed to the introduction of women priests have been allowed to join the Roman Catholic Church. The bishop said this had caused problems with some Catholic priests who found this unfair.
"We were told to be generous to the Anglican priests who joined, but we were surprised when the special permission was extended and made available to some who joined the Church of England after 1994 [when women were ordained for the first time].
"This has undoubtedly caused some grievance," he said.
Bishop McMahon defended the Anglicans who had crossed to Rome: "They bring a great experience of family life into the parish. I find that they are excellent at ministering to women."
He warned, however, that such a radical step could present as many problems as solutions.
In particular, the bishop expressed concern that supporting families would cause financial difficulties for the Church, which is already being forced to close churches to raise money.
Bishop McMahon has emerged as one of the favourites to succeed Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, who is due to stand down early next year.
It is understood that the cardinal has been personally pushing for the bishop as his successor and he is also popular with the traditionalists because of his support for the Latin Mass.
He addressed priests earlier this year at a training conference to learn the Tridentine Mass and backed the Pope's Motu Proprio, which removed restrictions on celebrating the rite.
Concerns had been raised that his chances had been damaged by an interview he gave in 2001 when he was reported to have personally supported women priests.
He was quoted as saying: "We believe the Holy Spirit speaks through the Church and I agree with that, so I look forward to the day when we will have women priests."
However, Bishop McMahon said that the following year he had met the Pope - then Cardinal Ratzinger - to explain that he had been misquoted.
"I look forward to the day when women play a greater role in ministry and take up more of a place in the Church, but not in sacred orders," he said.